Labor Day Parties and Cocktail Ideas

summer drinks

Summer’s almost over, but that’s no reason not to enjoy this last long weekend and celebrate the unofficial end to the season. And what’s a party without a few summery libations?

“Even though beverages are often an afterthought to the food, remember that they are usually the first thing guests try, so they set the tone for the whole affair,” points out celebrity chef and event planner Linnea Johansson, author of “Perfect Parties.”

Part of what makes cocktail planning so confusing is that price points are all over the place. When should you save money by choosing a cheapie booze and what’s really worth the extra dollars? Here are the best selections for any occasion, whether you’re planning an elegant multi-course dinner for friends or a low-key beach excursion. For each, we’ve provided budget and splurge-worthy options.

For Your Fête

For Your Fête

Summer’s almost over, but that’s no reason not to enjoy this last long weekend and celebrate the unofficial end to the season. And what’s a party without a few summery libations?

“Even though beverages are often an afterthought to the food, remember that they are usually the first thing guests try, so they set the tone for the whole affair,” points out celebrity chef and event planner Linnea Johansson, author of “Perfect Parties.”

Part of what makes cocktail planning so confusing is that price points are all over the place. When should you save money by choosing a cheapie booze and what’s really worth the extra dollars? Here are the best selections for any occasion, whether you’re planning an elegant multi-course dinner for friends or a low-key beach excursion. For each, we’ve provided budget and splurge-worthy options.

A Blowout Labor Day Bash

A Blowout Labor Day Bash

When you’ve got a slew of family and friends headed over, stock up on crowd-pleasers that can stand up to the heat.

Skimp: Lambrusco
A light, bubbly lambrusco served over ice hits the spot when it’s sweltering. “Purists will tell you that wine on the rocks is gauche,” says Michael Dietsch, author of “Shrubs: An Old-Fashioned Drink for Modern Times,” and writer of the Cocktail 101 column for SeriousEats. “I normally agree, but lambrusco is the exception.” Today’s lambruscos are dry, earthy, and sophisticated — a far cry from the syrupy concoctions that were all the rage in the ‘80s. One your guests will fall in love with: Lini910 Lambrusco, $16/bottle.

Splurge: Custom Beer
More and more breweries are giving patrons a chance to personalize their party by designing a beer flavor and label. “Not only is it a great little conversation starter, but guests can also bring a bottle home with them as a favor,” says Johansson.

Since shipping beer from another state can be a hassle, your best bet is to Google the name of your state plus the phrase “custom beer” to find a local microbrewery that will create a signature draft for you. Expect a case to cost about $50.

A Fancy Dinner Party

A Fancy Dinner Party

This lineup of elegant libations will make your guests feel perfectly pampered.

Skimp: Sherry + Mexican Wine
Aperitifs are having a moment, so start out the meal with sherry. “When I hear sherry, my thoughts naturally travel to little old Victorian ladies sipping out of tiny glasses, but in Spain sherry is commonly served alongside tapas,” says Johansson. “This idea has finally made its way stateside.” (Bodegas El Maestro Sierra Fino Sherry, $15, is a popular one.)

Then, make your wallet happy by pairing the main course with a Mexican wine. “I recently discovered the region, and even though it sounds horrible, it’s great,” promises Johansson. “California wine is fabulous, and remember that the Baja peninsula stretches down to Mexico and has a terrific wine production too.” You can get top-of-the-line California-style wines for a steal; just remember to stick to those from the Baja region, like Casa Madero, $15.

Splurge: St. Germaine Cocktail + French Wine
Since a little fizz adds a festive touch to any occasion, kick off the evening with an easy-to-make carbonated cocktail, like St. Germaine (elderflower liqueur, $37/bottle) stirred with equal parts club soda and champagne. And you can’t go wrong if you serve a classic French wine alongside dinner: white Burgundy or Bordeaux will go well with most dishes.

A Picnic for Two

A Picnic for Two

Enjoy a romantic evening al fresco with these fresh and light picks.

Skimp: Homemade shrub
A shrub is made of vinegar, fruit and sugar, and originated centuries ago as a way to preserve fruit. Today, it’s being buzzed about as a cutting-edge cocktail mixer: a sweet-yet-tangy blend popping up at trend-setting bars from NYC to LA.

Check out this recipe from Dietsch: About a week in advance of the picnic, combine 2 cups of lightly crushed raspberries and/or blackberries with 1 cup of sugar. Put the mixture in the fridge and let it macerate overnight. The sugar will draw the juices out of the berries and form a syrup. The next day, add 1 cup of vinegar and stir. Place a fine mesh strainer over a bowl, and press the berry mixture through the strainer. Bottle it up and let sit for several days to mellow out the flavor. Then mix ½ oz. of the mixture with 2 oz. vermouth and top with 2 oz. soda water.

Splurge: Vin Gris of Pinot Noir
“Yes, it’s cliché to suggest rosé in the summer, and yes you’re certain to find ample shelf space given over to cheap rosé in many liquor stores,” says Dietsch. “But if you can afford to spend a little more, Vin Gris will delight you. It’s dry, with hints of apricot, strawberry, and minerality.” It also pairs well with picnic foods. Dietsch swears by Vin Gris of Pinot Noir from Robert Sinskey Vineyard, $30.

Casual Small Summer Barbeque

Casual Small Summer Barbeque

An intimate gathering with casual food is the perfect jumping-off point to experiment with intriguing, up-and-coming drinks.

Skimp: Negroni Sbagliato
A traditional Negroni is made of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari; for summer, try a Negroni Sbagliato. “The Sbagliato, which translates to mistaken in Italian, was supposedly invented when an Italian bartender grabbed a bottle of Prosecco instead of gin,” says Dietsch. “It’s a delicious, low-octane drink, with plenty of bubbles to tickle the palate, and a light bitterness that quenches thirst.” Combine equal parts Campari, vermouth and Prosecco (such as Zardetto Prosecco Brut, $14). Serve over ice, garnished with a slice of orange.

Splurge: Orange Wine
In the world of vino, orange is definitely the new black. “Orange wine is simply white wine that sits in a fermentation tank with its skins and seeds, until the wine picks up a darker hue,” explains Dietsch. The skins also contribute tannins to the wine, giving the juice a richness and intensity usually lacking in whites.” Just like white varietals, you can serve them cold. La Stoppa Ageno, $35, will blow your guests away.

Beach Day With the Family

Beach Day With the Family

Beach days are all about having low-key fun. These bevvies channel that easy, breezy attitude.

Skimp: Shandy
Shandies are the love child of two amazing summer drinks: beer and lemonade. They’ve been big in Europe for ages, and have finally reached a frenzy across the pond this summer. Pour a bottle of mild pilsner beer (like Brooklyn Pilsner, $8.99 for a 6-pack) into a glass along with ¼ cup of lemonade, and get your sip on.

Splurge: Premixed Margarita
It’s a pain to assemble cocktails at the beach, but nothing’s better than savoring a limey, icy margarita with your toes in the sand. So bring premixed cocktails instead! “Prepare them up in advance, store them into liter-sized bottles and pop them into the cooler,” says Dietsch. Using a funnel, pour 13 oz. tequila (Herradura, $50, is a sure bet), 8 oz. triple sec, 5 oz. lime juice, and 6 oz. bottled water into a bottle, and shake to combine. Salud!

Camping With Your Girlfriends

Camping With Your Girlfriends

You’ll be busy pitching a tent and starting a fire — but thanks to these drinks, at least you can rest assured that happy hour will be a hit. They’re one part down-to-earth, one part distinctive, and 100 percent delicious.

Skimp: Boxed Wine
Boxed wine is finally coming into its own. If you haven’t tried it since the days of Franzia White Zin, it’s time to think inside the box again. Bota Box ($21 for 3 liters), Bandit ($9/liter), and From the Tank ($38 for 3 liters) are as tasty as they are affordable.

Splurge: Beertini
Meet your favorite new party guest: the beertini. Yes, brews are hitting the cocktail circuit this summer. “It might sound like an odd combo, but it’s actually quite refreshing,” says Johansson. “A lightly flavored beer creates a bit of fizz in the drink without being overbearing.” One yummy combo to try: Mix together 1 oz. gin, 1 oz. lemon juice, 2 oz. of light beer (like a Hefeweizen), and 1 tsp. of honey, and shake well.

A Clambake on the Beach

A Clambake on the Beach

A classic New England clambake is the epitome of summer. And what better complement to the simple seaside fare than a cold one?

Skimp: New England Pilsner
You can’t beat the crisp, clean taste of a pilsner. “And as a general rule of thumb, beverages from the same region as the food go well together,” says Johansson. Plus, with only about 5 percent alcohol, you can drink a few without worrying you’ll get sloshed. Peak Organic Fresh Cut ($8.99/6-pack) hits the right note of citrusy and subtly hoppy.

Splurge: Sour Beer
Sour beer is as in-demand as a Birkin right now. “They’re acidic brews, with rich flavors you can’t get from other beers,” explains Dietsch. “The style originated in Belgium, and several Belgian sours are available in the U.S., but American brewers are in on the act now too, and breweries across the country are experimenting with sours.” Spring for Rodenbach, a Flemish ale that will run you $10/bottle.

A Bridal Shower Brunch

A Bridal Shower Brunch

Tap into your girly side and toast the bride-to-be with gorgeous, rosé-inspired sips that you can prepare in advance. Johansson suggests two tasty takes on the summer staple.

Skimp: Rosé Ice Pops
These fun treats taste like sangria on a stick. Blend together 1 cup of raspberries, 1 cup of sliced and peeled peaches, 3 cups of rosé (stick with a Provencal pick, like Bieler Pere et Fils, $11), 1 cup of water, and 6 tbsp. of confectioner’s sugar. Pour into ice pop molds and freeze for at least 12 hours.

Splurge: Flowering Rosé Champagne Punch
Throwback ‘60s-era punches are trending right now and this recipe is a showstopper. Blend 2 cups of strawberries with ½ cup of sugar and strain into a punch bowl. Add the juice of 1 lemon, 1 bottle of rosé champagne (one to try: Nicolas Feuillatte, $50), and ¼ cup of strawberry liqueur (like Fragoli, $20 for a 12-ounce bottle, but worth the cost — amazingly flavorful, it’s made of wild strawberries and imported from Italy).

For extra flourish, toss in some flowering ice cubes: Pour water into an ice tray (this works best if you have one that makes large cubes), place edible flowers inside, and freeze overnight.

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